When the time comes, don't hesitate. Just act.
When he'd first went to bed, he'd been exhausted from countless hours of fighting, but now sleep wouldn't come. He'd force his eyes shut and his mind blank, but each time, it was only a minute before he was staring at the ceiling again, replaying the fights, reliving how he'd missed that one shot while on foot, how he could've saved Slippy's wing if he'd got his sights down sooner, how one of his laser shots had almost hit Leon's ship. How he probably wouldn't have been able to take the last shot without remembering his rival's words, which still rang in his ears.
It didn't help that everything in the room was foreign: the sheets, the scents, and even the air composition. Military beds weren't nearly as comfortable as his own, now incinerated along with the rest of his ship, but that alone wouldn't keep him from sleep. Maybe it was the excitement, knowing that when he woke, they'd be docked in a Zoness tourist magnet. Maybe it was the guilt, knowing that hundreds of military operatives, the Great Fox, and Star Wolf had all gone down with the Queen. Or maybe it was the uncertainty, knowing that somehow Wolf's team had probably survived.
Whatever it was, it kept him up through most of the night. He wasn't sure if the replays ever morphed into dreams; the only thing he knew for certain in the morning was that the alarm came far too soon.
He found the others in the carrier's lounge the next day, crowded around the windows opposite its entrance. Peppy's head cocked over towards him when he entered. "Sure is something, eh?" the hare said.
He didn't mean the lounge—it was the same as the one on any other military vessel, lacking the holovisions or billiard tables that the team had put in their own lounge, making due with only a few couches and seats clustered around the room. He could see the light coming in from the windows, and when he got closer, he could see the beautiful blue oceans typical of Zoness—a sharp contrast to the toxic waste he'd seen not too many years past. "Wow. Too bad we can't stay."
"Maybe we can," Falco said, arms crossed, "once we get our paycheck."
"I still can't believe we did it," Krystal said. When Fox met her eyes, their minds touched, and Fox felt a bit of her elation.
"Saving the world isn't as grand as everyone thinks," Fox said, a bit amused. "Better get ready to file for unemployment."
Slippy huffed. "I'm not trying to be greedy, but I hope they pay us more than last time."
"Unlikely," Peppy said, his voice cold. "I'm sure the government will focus on rebuilding the city, and most of our reward will be fame. Again."
"Totally unfair," Falco said.
Fox laughed. "If you want money, look into prostitution." He took another look out the window. If he were looking from the other side of the ship, he knew he would see the small yet metropolitan city of Kana, one of the larger port cities of Zoness. Of course, by Corneria's standards, that was still fairly small, but after being trapped onboard ships for a month with his only land-time always accompanied by an arsenal of explosives, the thought of prowling just about any city made his tail wag. "I think I'm gonna hit the streets, now."
"Uh-huh." Falco eyed Fox with mock suspicion. "So how much are you going to pay the whores tonight?"
"Silly Falco," Fox said. "I don't need to pay for sex."
Slippy seemed to be studying Fox. "You look too tired for that, anyway," he said with an admirably straight face. "Pull an all-nighter?"
Fox shook his head. "Just... was thinking about some things."
"That's dangerous," Falco said.
Fox rolled his eyes. "For you, maybe."
"Is it Star Wolf?" Peppy asked.
Fox shrugged. "I mean, that's part of it, I guess. I don't think they're gone."
"Don't worry about it," Peppy said. "Even if they're still alive, I don't think they want us dead anymore."
Falco's eyes flashed with annoyance. "Oh, really? They only helped us so they could kill us later, you know. And there's no way they could've lived."
"I dunno." Fox was quiet for a while, before looking at Slippy. "What's your opinion, Slips?"
He could see the toad's face light up a little. "Star Wolf didn't want the aparoids to win, but I bet they wouldn't have minded if we'd died on the way out... you think?"
"I don't know what to think," Fox said. Star Wolf, especially his rival, had been on and off his mind for most of the war, and he was beginning to tire of dwelling on them so much, because he never made any progress in figuring them out. "I don't think we should bother."
"I think," Krystal said, "that we should stop talking about the war and try to relax ourselves."
"Yeah." Fox tapped his knuckles against the neoglass of the windows, as if the motion would help him concentrate. "I mean, that's why we're here, right? And there's nothing we can do about them, anyway."
"Well," Peppy said, already starting towards the door to the hall with the closest elevator, "Let's go see the city."
The others trailed after him, talking amongst themselves. Fox followed, and soon Krystal was at his side. "Do you have any plans for tonight, Fox?"
Fox thought for a minute, then shrugged. "Really, I've had enough plans for a year or three. I'll improvise."
The Zonessian seaside was one of those places you saw in travel brochures scattered throughout the system, the kind of place that everyone knew of, but far fewer have been to. Fox, sprawled on his team-logoed blanket and comfortably full from the bowl of Kani soup he'd consumed half an hour ago, couldn't help noticing that, despite Andross's invasion nearly ten years ago, the shores were still the same as the last time he'd been here: beautiful blue oceans, tropical weather, and sandy beaches, host to citizens from all demographics.
He couldn't prevent his eyes from following the bystanders, drawing him to a lapine couple, a young female cheetah, a middle-aged male wolf... unlike Fox, who was dressed in his normal casual attire, marred only by the addition of sunglasses, the vast majority of them wore only swimsuits. To him, who was used to the flight jumpsuits and full uniforms Star Fox wore in space, it looked almost absurd. And most of the civilians were grinning, talking amongst themselves while their cubs chased each other across the beach, Andross and the Aparoids far from their minds.
When the young couple drifted closer, Fox couldn't help noticing that the male looked to be little more than eighteen, yet already a golden band adorned his finger. Fox could almost feel Krystal hovering over him now, telling him once more that he needed to be looking for someone to spend his life with, that he couldn't let blasters and Arwings be his sole companions. She'd been on him steadily about that ever since they'd split, but he'd always deflected her admonishments by pointing out more pressing problems, such as Andross or the aparoids—all of which, he noted, are gone now. But there was still Star Wolf, he reminded himself; he refused to believe they were dead. He just couldn't decide what to make of them.
He'd been lounging for half an hour before he felt a shadow fall across him. He looked up, seeing a female fennec standing beside him. She gave him a friendly smile, and said, "You here alone?"
She wore only a bikini, and she was alone, giving him what seemed like a solicitous eye, so he figured he knew why she was here. "Yeah."
Her muzzle tensed in concentration, and her eyes narrowed as she looked at him. "Do I know you?"
"You know me, but I don't know you." He removed his sunglasses and looked at her anew, and her face lit up in recognition.
Seeing the cant of her ears that implied a complete loss of confidence, he didn't know if he should be flattered or annoyed. "Yeah, but keep it quiet."
"I knew you were here, but... I didn't think you'd be, well, here." She gestured with her hands as she spoke, and her voice came out as if it were almost panicked.
He slipped the sunglasses back on, a bit annoyed that his location had been broadcasted. "I don't come here often."
"Couldn't recognize you. Do you normally dress like this?"
"Well," he said, shifting under her scrutiny, "I'm trying to avoid attracting attention." Which, he supposed, was true; he didn't have to mention that he normally just threw clothes on and looked however he looked, but hey, what reason had to shatter her dreams of grandeur?
"Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?"
He stared at her for a few seconds before saying, "I was actually about to leave."
"Oh?" She'd managed to pull her ears back up, but now they flickered from disappointment, though not surprise. "Where to?"
"Dinner with the team," he lied. "After, we might go get a drink. Know of any good places?"
"There's a Swarthy Stein, the Kana Flagon, a Fichina Café... you can find those on a map—the Flagon's really good—and there's also—"
Fox held up a paw, saying, "Thanks. That's all I need to know."
"A pleasure." She took a small bow, out of respect, but it ended up only looking embarrassing. "Nice meeting you, McCloud."
She left him, and minutes later, Fox was in the city again, carrying his towel along with the rest of his scant personal items in the Phoenix bag slung on his back. Unlike in Corneria, carrying a blaster out in Kana would call too much attention to him, but having one in the bag made him feel secure, with the stipulation that the familiar weight usually on his side was now on his back. And as always after big missions, he couldn't stop his automatic scanning of the area, even if he knew there were no threats.
Kana lacked the tall buildings and huge throngs of people that were so prevalent in Corneria, and to Fox, that made it appear much more homely. Though Kana was no small-town village, it certainly was nowhere near as annoyingly boisterous as the grand city. A perfect place for a vacation, a date, or—thinking back to Krystal's words—a tryst.
That made him think back to the fennec at the beach. She'd been fairly attractive (though not worth mentioning to Falco), but he'd known as soon as he'd seen her that he wasn't interested. He deliberated a bit before deciding that probably the only people he would consider dating were pilots, as any other profession just wouldn't mesh with him. Or worse, would be reduced to a sputtering mess like the fennec.
The problem was that he only knew four females that fit the description, and all four of them were out. He'd broken up with both Krystal and Fara in the past, and he had no desire to date felines, so there went Katt and Miyu. And the males... he felt his ears fall in shame, and decided that he didn't want to think about that. Maybe he was doomed to be single forever, and Krystal would just have to get over it. He couldn't deny that he missed curling up next to someone at night, but a mate was more than just a warm body, the likes of which you could get from a heated blanket or pillow at the local supermarket. Fox had a hard enough time just satisfying himself, let alone another person.
Something clicked in Fox's memory when he saw an argon sign for what he assumed was a bar: The Kana Flagon. Terrible name, he thought. Why the hell not?
The bar was dark and noisy, a battleground to a war of scents from which alcohol had emerged victorious. The mixture tickled his nostrils, warning of a familiar scent, but it was near impossible to trace a single one in the mesh of hundreds that had accumulated over the day. He headed for the bar and ordered a domestic Zoness beer, then migrated to one of the tables closer to the entrance, dropping his bag by his seat and making sure to sit so that he could see the door.
The scent was stronger here, wafting across his nostrils, and the soldier in him couldn't stop ruining his drinking-time by trying to place what it was. It took him several minutes before he figured it out; the scent was jet fuel. There was a pilot in here, but not one that he knew, as none of the people inside smelled familiar. Their scents were fresher and sharper, and he would've picked out an old friend immediately. The realization sent a creeping tingle up his spine, his instincts alerting him that someone was watching him. He kept sneaking glances around the room to see if he recognized anyone, or if he could catch someone staring at him.
He saw one eye looking at him.
He kept alternatively staring into his drink and casting glances over in that direction, and once he could've sworn he saw the glint of purple staring back at him. He looked away and took a swig from his drink, mulling over his choices. Logic was telling him to get out of the bar, but curiosity overpowered it—he'd never have this chance again. A purple eye traced him on the way over there, until Fox sat down beside the other, looking away.
"How'd I know you'd come over here?" The voice, deep and rough, was one Fox had heard countless times before over the comm—oft while gritting his teeth, banging the controls, and hoping to emerge alive from whatever scuffle had brought them together.
Bereft of his ship, the sound of it was enough to pick up his pulse. Coming here had been much easier than thinking of what to say once he'd done it. "Wolf..."
Wolf's glass met the table, a little harder than necessary. "Look, just because I saved your ass a few times doesn't mean we're best buddies now, alright?"
Fox turned to face the older canine. Wolf was leaning back in the chair, staring at him, chest puffed out as if trying to scare him. It wasn't necessary. If anything, Wolf was more impressive out of the cockpit than in it: he was tall, even sitting down, and his shoulders were broad; his arms bulged with muscle, but he lacked the overly-bulky physique of a bodybuilder. And though Wolf had few scattered scars, his posture bent with a certain tension that belied a deeper wound than could come from battle.
Wolf's voice snapped Fox out of his reverie. He made himself look away, muttering, "You're straight to the point."
"I don't want you to go around thinking we're pals, okay?"
Fox frowned. The condemning words of his teammates echoed in his head, telling him that the other probably still wanted him dead. This was the wolf he'd dueled in the skies, the one pilot that always made him edgy—but at the same time, he thought, the only reason he was still alive. "We don't have to be enemies, you know."
"Wish that were true," Wolf muttered, his voice nearly inaudible.
"Why isn't it?"
"You don't understand these things, pup."
Fox felt his ears flick in annoyance. He couldn't quite read Wolf's expression. "Must you call me that?"
"I think you owe me enough that I can call you whatever I damn well please."
Fox sighed, throwing up his paws in frustration. "Honestly, why do you hate me?"
"I don't hate you." Strangely, Wolf wouldn't meet his eye. "We're just on the wrong sides."
"Could've fooled me."
Wolf winced. "That was different."
"You saved my ass."
Wolf's muzzle jerked closer to his, and Fox instinctively moved his own away. "Your ass needed saving."
"But you didn't have to help, and I didn't even call you. You just came flying in like you were on our side."
"I didn't have a choice." Wolf stared at him with a single eye, daring him to say otherwise.
"Whatever." Fox looked away first, and drowned down another bulp of beer before muttering, "Thanks."
There; he'd said it. Fox wasn't surprised when Wolf just looked back at his drink and grunted, "Don't think it'll happen again."
They fell into silence, Fox absently rubbing his forehead with a paw. It seemed as if Wolf was deliberately establishing a barrier between them—as if his rival was afraid of talking to him. He sipped from his drink, waiting for the other to speak, but when he looked back over, he saw that Wolf had been staring at him. "What?"
Wolf just shook his head. He looked as if he were calculating something, and it made Fox uneasy. "Thinking."
When Fox brought up his drink for another sip, he found that it was empty. He considered going to get another, but figured that since it was obvious that Wolf wasn't open to discussion, maybe it was time for him to go. "I'll leave you to it," he said. He stood and slung his bag over his shoulders. "Sorry I wasted my time talking to you."
If Wolf had heard, he made no indication of it. Fox sighed and started towards the exit of the bar. By the time he got to the door, though, he was sure that he was being followed.
"Keep walking," Wolf said from behind him.
Fox tried to keep his fear from showing. "Why?" he said without turning.
Wolf leaned closer, so that his breath was hot on Fox's ears. His words came in a whisper. "I have a blaster." Cold metal pressed against Fox's leg, and he had to wonder how Wolf was concealing it. "Walk five feet ahead of me, and if you so much as look back at me, you're gone."
Fox gritted his teeth, but obeyed, walking outwards into the streets. "You're bluffing."
"Mmm. Think I'll mind blowing off your head?"
Fox had no idea. "Fine." He followed Wolf's directions, walking through the city towards the coast. They passed civilians, but Wolf must have kept the blaster concealed, because none of them looked afraid.
He barely heard when Wolf said, "Turn," at the entrance to an alley. He angled into the alley, and as soon as he was around the corner, he opened his bag and retrieved his blaster. Gripping it firmly in a paw, he spun and aimed it at the alley's entrance.
Wolf came around the corner, blaster pointing at Fox. "No blasters," he said. He waited for Fox to nod before throwing his blaster to the side. Fox could've taken the opportunity to gun Wolf down, but he found himself casting his blaster away anyway, despite knowing that he had no chance of winning this. And as soon as the metal was out of Fox's paws, Wolf lunged and locked him into a grapple.
Fox cursed, tendrils of fear creeping up his spine. Wolf was strong. The older canine had both of Fox's arms in a grip, and he knew he wasn't going to win by sheer strength. Wolf was heavier, he thought, and maybe he could use that to his advantage.
Fox kicked out at the other's legs, and though it didn't do any damage, it was enough to knock Wolf off balance. Fox took the opportunity to twist the other's arm, making the older canine grunt in pain. But before Fox could land a punch, Wolf seized upon Fox's bad positioning to kick him, sending him staggering back. He recovered in time to leap away from Wolf's charge.
For a while, they stared at each other, panting. Fox could feel himself shaking—it was just like it was in the cockpit, only exacerbated tenfold, the fear driving out all else because now he knew he couldn't win. It didn't help that Wolf was blocking the only exit, so there was no way he could escape. If Wolf wanted him dead, he would die. But he couldn't help thinking, Why? Was this a game to Wolf? Revenge for all the broken ships?
Fox panicked when Wolf started towards him. He didn't know what to do—his mind locked up, his military training dissipating. He threw up his hands to block, despite Peppy's voice screaming at him Dodge and retaliate! When Wolf collided with him, he was completely overwhelmed, and he fell to the ground.
Less than half a second later, Wolf was on top of him, and his strong paws closed around Fox's throat, thumbs digging into the hollow spot at its base. Fox sucked in a breath by instinct, but it caught in his throat and he gagged, sputtering for air that wouldn't come. He struggled to push Wolf off, but the older canine was too strong. Spots of white dotted his vision, tears welled up as he coughed, blurring his sight and burning his eyes.
Just when the world began to slip away, air rushed into Fox's lungs, and he gulped all of it he could, leading him to choke and sputter again. The pressure at his windpipe was gone, though Wolf's paws still encircled his neck, limp. Panting, Fox knew he should prepare to throw all his body weight against Wolf, to try and get him off, but he didn't have the energy. He blinked his ears clear and looked up at Wolf.
The older canine was frowning, eyes focused on Fox's chest, but not seeing it. When Wolf's hands slid away from his throat, curiosity overwhelmed caution. "Why?"
"I was wrong." Wolf stood, the weight leaving Fox's chest, and looked down at him. "Sometimes I do hate you."
"You won't see me again," Wolf said. He walked towards the exit of the alley, moving with surprising languor. "It's been fun. Won't deny I enjoyed flying with you, pup."
"Wait!" Fox's muscles locked up when he tried to stand, but he managed to move himself into a sitting position. "What the hell is your problem?"
Wolf snarled, and Fox had to battle the instinct to scoot back. "You're alive, McCloud. You should be kissing my boots."
"I don't understand. Why..."
"You're a smart guy," Wolf said. "Figure it out."
Ten seconds later, Fox was alone in the alley. He crossed his legs and rested his forehead in his paws, thinking, Hell if I won't see you again.